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Billiards: Rhymes with Cool

4 minute read

Somebody once said that “proficiency at billiards is a sign of a misspent youth.” If so, the place to study late-stage delinquency last week was Manhattan’s Hotel Commodore, site of the World Pocket Billiard Championship.

There was “Arizona Jimmy” Moore, wearing cowboy boots with his tuxedo, and Onofrio Lauri, whose favorite trick is to polish his bald pate with a handkerchief so that it will reflect the table lights into the eyes of his opponents. There, too, was Irving Crane, who in one year at Hobart College learned mostly how to run a rack so fast that his friends call him “Machine Gun.” Luther (“Wimpy”) Lassiter was on hand, cheerfully admitting that he has not done an honest day’s work since he earned “810 an hour” delivering groceries at 15. Once Lassiter spotted a “mark” 40 points in a 100-point match, and the fellow pocketed 58 balls before he even got a chance to shoot. Wimpy calmly chalked his cue and ran 100 balls to win the bet: $5,000.

Sharks on TV. The fact is that the pool-hall sharks — those sly profession als who once traveled the U.S. preying on amateurs — are finding it tougher and tougher to make a living. Not that the game has declined. There are as many pool halls as ever — it’s just that they like to be called les académies de billard now. No more spittoons, no more raucous voices. Tables are covered with pink felt, and ladies, bless their well-chalked tips, are taking up the game. Pool halls even hire “knockers” to protect patrons from the hustlers. “Nobody gambles any more,” sighs Lassiter. The only thing left is to play other hustlers and get TV to pay the salaries. So there they are, traveling from tournament to tournament, competing for $30,000 in Las Vegas, just like Jack Nicklaus and Arnie Palmer.

At last week’s championship, a crowd of 700 jammed the Windsor Ballroom, and ABC-TV was on hand to catch every clicking carom. The prize money was $13,000. Nobody was taking it lightly, least of all an ex-butcher from Minersville, Pa., named Joe Balsis. “My wife and kids have a nasty habit,” said Balsis, 42. “They eat.”

The son of a poolroom owner, Joe learned the game at four, won the junior world championship at 12, the armed-services title at 23. Then he bought a butcher shop, did not touch a cue again for 17 years. Two years ago he broke out of retirement, took a job managing a billiard parlor in Jackson Heights, N.Y. “I saw the way the game was growing,” he says, “and I decided to try again.” Last month he ran a record 150 straight balls in a tournament at Burbank, Calif., and last week he won eight games in a row before losing one.

Kisses & Gamesmanship. In the finals, Balsis’ opponent was none other than Wimpy Lassiter. A master gamesman in the tradition of Robert Cannafax, who used to pull a knife and stab himself in his wooden leg while his opponent was shooting, Lassiter complained of a fever, sinusitis and ulcers. “Pool players all die of malnutrition at 50,” he moaned. “I’ve got four years to live.”

Lassiter bit noisily into a piece of hard candy whenever Joe tried a difficult shot. Balsis refused to rattle. First, Wimpy opened up with a run of six, and Joe ran 19. Lassiter put together a string of 47, and Balsis shot 78. Then, after Wimpy had pocketed 17 more, Joe ran 52 balls. Finally, he lined up the last ball—a shot into the corner pocket. “The kisses and caroms look tough,” he said later, “but straight-on shots are the hardest.” Click. Plunk. The ball dropped neatly into the pocket, and by a score of 150-70, Joe Balsis was the world champion of billiards, richer by $3,500.

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